Thought for the Day:Don't let copyright stymie IT innovation

Research wizard Peet Morris gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.As far as I can tell, a .doc file is,...

Research wizard Peet Morris gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.As far as I can tell, a .doc file is, essentially, encrypted. To decode and make sense of its content, you need a software application that can unravel its file format - right? But is the file format designed as a technical protection measure, or is it simply an efficient necessity designed to hold the data required to reproduce the original document later?

What does it matter, you ask. Well, as far as I can tell, if the file format used in a .doc file is considered in any way a technical protection measure, Microsoft will soon be able to prevent anyone else from providing you with software for reading your Word files.

And they can do this? Yes, because copyright law is about to change.

On 22 June 2001, the European Union Copyright Directive was passed, and by 22 December 2002 the member states have to implement it. Of course, like all legislation (especially that originating from Brussels), there's some ambiguity as to what various parts of it actually mean - or, at least, how they're to be interpreted by us in the UK.

With this in mind, the UK Patent Office has published a consultation paper that outlines its proposed implementation. The right to comment on this expires at the end of this month.

Now, I'm no lawyer, but if sometime, in the not too distant future, a .doc is deemed to be protected, this change in the law could have a profound affect on software development and, in particular, open source projects. For instance, I suspect that organisations like OpenOffice, which is behind the open source office productivity suite, may be prevented from providing users with the means to decode .doc files.

Of course, it's not just about file formats. It seems that as a bottom line, you'll only be able to access any protected digital work through software/hardware licensed by the copyright holder. Think about that for a while. What does that say about any company's future ability to create interoperable products - possibly the mainstay of competition and innovation?


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Peet Morris has been a software developer since the 1970s. He is a D.Phil (PhD) student at Oxford University, where he's researching Software Engineering, Computational Linguistics and Computer Science.

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